We get a lot of mail here at RVReviews.net about the problems people encounter with their RVs. The #1 complaint is always fit and finish issues (you might want to consider our Pre-Purchase Inspection Guide if you’re currently in the market for a new or used RV), followed by leaks (even in this day of EPDM and one-piece roofing systems) and then it’s slide-outs –either they won’t extend/retract or there’s a grinding noise and a sense of something amiss. Fit and finish issues and leaks are annoying, without a doubt. There’s a sense that your expensive new RV was assembled in a rather haphazard matter (or the dealer was deficient during the delivery prep phase –or both). However, these aren’t the type of problems that will bring a vacation to an unscheduled halt.
A stubborn slide-out, though, can turn your trip in to a disaster. Either you spend your days climbing over furniture in an attempt to live in an RV with the walls pushed in or you can’t depart for home with a slide-out that refuses to retract for road travel. What to do?
First of all, an understanding of the mechanisms involved can help you troubleshoot the problem on your own. Today’s slide-outs are either electric or hydraulic, with the former making up the majority of mechanisms.
Hydraulic is a relative newcomer to the slide-out scene and has some distinct advantages over electric. First offered on high-end RVs with larger, heavier slide-outs, hydraulics are appearing more frequently on entry to mid-level units and may prove to be the end-all in the coming years. A hydraulic system works via a pump connected to a series of valves and lines. In a nutshell, a pump pushes air or fluid through the lines and extends/retracts the slide-out. It’s a surprisingly powerful system. If you’ve ever marveled at the ability of a bulldozer to easily pick up thousands of pounds of dirt, you’ve witnessed hydraulics at work. This massively robust approach makes light work of slide-out movement, which (theoretically, at least) leads to long life and relatively few problems.
On the down side, few RVers will have the know-how to repair a hydraulic system on their own if something does go awry. A failure will usually be due to a loss of pressure in the lines (leak) or a defective pump. In either instance you will probably find yourself at the mercy of an RV repairman, who may or may not have the parts needed for a quick repair on hand. Also, due to the inherent power of hydraulics, a single pump/motor is often used to extend/retract all slide-outs. When it works, you’re golden. When it doesn’t, none of your slide-outs will function. With proper maintenance there’s a low probability of malfunction with a hydraulic system, but if a malfunction does happen it will result in a complete system failure and may require the assistance of someone versed in hydraulic repair –not always easy to find when your campsite happens to be miles from the closest town.
The secret to a happy and reliable hydraulic system comes down to maintenance. Your owner’s manual will include a schedule for fluid replacement (some units now have sealed systems that may not require this) as well as an explanation on checking/topping up when necessary. Lines and
valves should also be checked regularly for signs of leaking, bulges, excessive wear, kinks or anything else that may affect the ability of the pump to push or pull when required. A weak spot on a line can be the result of something rubbing a soft spot on to the hose, excessive heat from an exhaust system or engine, or a failed connector. Problems may present themselves slowly over time (a slow leak) or instantly (a blown pressurized line –you’ll know when it happens, trust us), but either scenario will be easily identifiable by the presence of dripping hydraulic fluid underneath your RV. Of course this assumes you can see anything underneath your RV. The increasing use of enclosed underbellies in today’s RVs can make it difficult if not impossible to isolate the location of the leak. We’ve had reports of leaking hydraulic fluid dripping from a seam of the underbelly covering a considerable distance from the actual leak, requiring the removal of the cover (no easy task) to properly identify the origin of the leak. One owner, working via cell phone with a factory rep, kept insisting the leak was originating from the rear corner of his RV, much to the bewilderment of the rep, who knew there were no lines, pumps or fluids mounted anywhere near the rear corner. In reality, the leak was near the front of the RV and the fluid was traveling the length of the underbelly covering before leaking from the rear.
While hydraulic systems may be the wave of the future, it’s undeniably a more complicated system and the more parts to a system, the greater the chance something can go wrong.
A traditional electric system, on the other hand, is much simpler. An electric motor activates gears and pushes/pulls a slide-out. As long as the motor is working properly (and you have electricity) and the gears are aligned properly, everything will be good to go. Unfortunately, the gears used in some units are not aligned properly or are undersized for the task, resulting in a grinding sound (the best indicator of something amiss) and eventual failure. A system out-of-alignment may chew itself to pieces, strip teeth from gears, and bring the proceedings to an irreversible halt. At this point, a working electric motor will serve no purpose and you will soon be getting your cardio workout for the day as you attempt to muscle your slide-out back in manually –against its will.
Most systems today have an emergency manual override where you use a hand crank (or electrical drill) to extend/retract the slide-out. While this may work once or twice, if you’re dealing with improper alignment or damaged gears, you’ll be living on borrowed time. At some point the slide-out mechanism is going to completely lose its ability to roll and then you’ll both be stuck. Also, continuing to use a mechanism that is obviously out of whack will only contribute to more damage, turning a possibly minor and inexpensive repair in to a major expense. Several owners have told us they’ve used their hand crank exclusively for years now after their electric motor failed but we think this is a recipe for disaster. An emergency override is for emergencies just like the tiny spare tire in many of today’s cars is made to get you to the next exit and a tire store. Neither a manual hand crank or a spare tire is designed to be a permanent replacement.
With that being said, the biggest issue with slide-outs doesn’t have anything to do with the extension/retraction process. It has to do with seals, the rubber gaskets that surround a slide-out and keep the elements at bay. Improperly installed seals can pull loose and affect movement of the slide. They can also enable rain to leak in or provide access to rodents looking for a nice place to set up shop and start a large and ravenous family.
Leaks in RVs are funny things. Many times they’re active for years before announcing themselves –and when they do, the damage has been done. A rodent infiltration can be a bit easier to spot, but often eviction can be time consuming and require the removal of wall paneling or ceilings. We’ve heard some real horror stories of what people found in their walls after realizing their slide-out seals had let in a single mouse or two.
Improperly mounted seals can come loose at the worst times, too. One reader told us of a dangling slide-out seal that managed to catch a flying tire at highway speed and in the blink of an eye the seal was stripped from its housing and flung into the path of a passing car, breaking its windshield. The slide-out itself was wrenched off its track before relinquishing its hold on the seal and required several thousands of dollars of repair. While an extended RV warranty covered the damage for the owner, it couldn’t have been a fun afternoon for anyone involved and one can assume that in hindsight the owner would have preferred to have performed a quick pre-travel inspection and avoided the whole scene.
Seals are an easy thing to inspect, too, and should be –frequently. A simple once over, visually, and a little light tugging to ensure everything is snug will suffice. Having someone operate the slides from above while you eyeball the movement from below will let you confirm everything is working smoothly, too. It can also help you identify the problem if something seems (or sounds) amiss, as well. There are plenty of aftermarket lubricant sprays made specifically for slide-outs and these are recommended as a cheap preventive measure. An ounce of prevention, and all that…
In conclusion, there are pros and cons to both electric and hydraulic slide-outs. We think the new hydraulic systems are superior to the first generation electric ones, but the current electric systems are pretty solid and reliable –manufacturers have learned a lot about building a better slide-out in the last ten years. We don’t recommend buying or avoiding an RV because of the slide-out mechanism. Buy the RV that works for you and spend some time learning how the slide-out works. You don’t need to be an authority to understand the gist of the system; just know enough to perform visual inspections and a little light maintenance. Know how to operate the emergency manual override (and where the hand crank is hidden) and if you do experience a grinding sound, stop everything immediately and check it out from below. Don’t force the mechanism. Often you’ll find that your gears are pulling in something they shouldn’t (part of a folded patio umbrella, in one situation we heard of), and you can correct it yourself –although the umbrella may never be the same.
That’s it for this week, folks. Check those tire pressures before hitting the road and enjoy the weather. It will only get better from here on out!
The RVReviews.net Team